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by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Background Readings

For a general overview of readings from Herodotus, consult the Outline of Herodotus, The Histories, Books 1, 6.48ff., 7, and 8.


Herodotus' Histories strike the modern reader as rather curious stuff: an odd blend of history, anecdote, folk tale, gossip, tall tales, travelogue, and National Geographic special. Marincola's introduction (in de Sélincourt) provides a brief assessment of the work from a modern historian's point of view: its structure and overall form, Herodotus' sources, his biases, his trustworthiness. Here our concern will be the background to Herodotus' account and (briefly) approaches to evaluating his aims in writing this curious work.

Today Herodotus is referred to (somewhat inaccurately) as the Father of History; in antiquity, by contrast, he was often called the Father of Lies. This evaluation is based in part on Herodotus' pro-Athenian biases (discussed below), but to a great degree it represents a reaction to the curious "tall tales" in which his work abounds: stories, e.g., of gold-digging ants the size of foxes (3.102-05); of races of people bald from birth (4.23) or with the feet of goats (4.25) or with only one eye (4.26); [FN 1] of bizarre sexual practices (these you'll have to find for yourselves!); of plants which, when thrown on a fire, emit a smoke that makes people drunk "just as wine does the Greeks" (1.202 — surely a bizarre fiction of some sort!). [FN 2] This love of tall tales earned the censure, in particular, of Herodotus' younger contemporary, the historian Thucydides (as we'll see later in the course), who regards them as a sign that Herodotus is more interested in entertaining his audience and winning applause than in presenting a serious historical analysis.


Historical Background

A second, seemingly related oddity of Herodotus' account is his inability to get to his ostensible subject, the wars between mainland Greece and Persia. Herodotus' stated purpose is to record the causes and the events of the Persian Wars, the series of battles fought between the Persian empire and the Greeks in the early fifth century B.C. He has a very curious way of backing into his story, however, which can make Book 1 of the Histories heavy going for those who lack the proper background. Technically the Persian Wars are comprised of three major episodes:

1) The Ionian revolt (499-494): the Greek city-states of Asia Minor, under the leadership of Histiaeus of Miletus, rebel against their Persian masters. Athens and Eretria (on the island of Euboea) both send contingents of ships to aid the rebels. In 498 the city of Sardis, seat of the Persian satrap, is sacked and burnt, the high-point of the revolt. The Persians, under King *Darius, eventually respond in earnest to this affront and quickly retake control. In 494 Miletus is captured and the revolt collapses.
2) Darius decides to punish Athens and Eretria for their meddling in Persian affairs. In 492 he sends a fleet, under the command of his general *Mardonius, around the northern coast of the Aegean, with Athens and Eretria as its ultimate goal. This expedition is intended either as a sharp warning to the Greeks to mind their own business or as an exploratory force sent in preparation for a larger expedition later. In any case, the expedition makes it only so far as Macedon before the fleet is destroyed in a storm as it rounds *Mt. Athos, a notoriously treacherous place for sailing (see map in de Sélincourt). In 490 Darius sends a second force, under the command of Datis and Artaphernes, accompanied and advised by Hippias, former tyrant of Athens. This expedition sails due west across the Aegean, pillaging as it goes. It sacks Eretria and lands at *Marathon, on the east coast of Attica, only to be defeated by the Athenians under *Miltiades, aided by a contingent from Plataea. Sparta was asked to help but was unable to send troops immediately due to a religious festival. Today's marathons are based on the story of the runner Pheidippides (or Philippides), supposedly sent from Marathon to Athens (approx. 26 miles) to announce the victory and/or warn of the approach of the Persian fleet; according to Herodotus, however, Pheidippides was sent to Sparta, before the battle, to seek the Spartans' help, a distance of approx. 150 miles (which Pheidippides is said to have covered in two days). You can perhaps understand why today's participants in the marathon have opted for the former version of the story. From the Persian point of view the battle of Marathon was a minor event, a small set-back in one of their many foreign ventures; from the Athenian point of view, however, this victory was astonishing: the Athenian hoplites, never so renowned as those of Sparta, had managed, virtually unaided, to defeat the forces of the mighty Persian empire. Marathon will remain a symbol of the discipline and valor of the Athenian democracy in its early days and, more specifically, of the wise leadership of the conservative Miltiades.
3) Darius dies in 486, to be succeeded by his son *Xerxes. No longer content with half measures, Xerxes prepares a huge land and naval expedition. As his forces are gathering, he prepares their route by casting an elaborate bridge across the *Hellespont near Abydos (see map in de Sélincourt) and by digging a canal behind Mt. Athos (thus forestalling a repetition of Mardonius' earlier misfortune there). The expedition sets out in the summer of 480, marching effortlessly through Thrace, Macedon, and Thessaly. In August it meets its first serious resistance from a relatively small band of Greeks (mainly Spartans) stationed at a narrow mountain pass known as *Thermopylae. The Greeks, under the Spartan king *Leonidas, manage to hold the pass for several days before falling due to treachery. (At about the same time, the Greek naval forces (mainly Athenian) meet a similar defeat off the coast of Artemisium, to the east of Thermopylae.) Xerxes' forces continue on to Athens, which the Athenians, under the advice of their crafty leader *Themistocles, have deserted, looking to their fleet as their one hope of defeating Xerxes' massive expedition. In September the Greeks defeat Xerxes' fleet in the narrow straits off the island of *Salamis, where the larger Persian ships are easy prey for the smaller, more maneuverable Greek ships and their highly trained crews. This effectively marks the end of Xerxes' expedition, since he can no longer count on lines of supply for his land troops. Xerxes returns to Persia, leaving behind a land force under Mardonius. The latter is decisively defeated in August of 479 at *Plataea. Note that while the naval victory at Salamis belongs largely to Athens, due to her fleet and the cunning strategy of her leader Themistocles, the victory at Plataea belongs to the Spartan hoplites. (The same parallelism can be seen in Herodotus' account of the two defeats earlier at Thermopylae and Artemisium.) [FN 3]

This is the heart of the story that Herodotus has to tell. You will notice, however, that it takes him a good deal of time to get to it: the Ionian revolt is not dealt with until Book 5, Marathon not until the end of Book 6, Xerxes' expedition not until Book 7. Instead, more than half of the work is taken up with matters prior to the Persian Wars proper, as Herodotus takes us all over the globe, describing in great detail the growth of the Persian Empire and the various regions and peoples whom it came to subjugate (see de Sélincourt xxxi-xxxviii for a general outline).


Herodotus and Myth: I

In fact, Herodotus begins his account of tensions between the Greeks and the East by reaching back into the realm of myth (1.1-5) and arguing that the stories of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen reflect the beginnings of a lengthy series of disputes that culminate in the Persian Wars. Here we meet yet another puzzling feature of Herodotus' approach to history. Read Herodotus 1.1-5 and compare Herodotus' account with the following standard versions of these women's stories as Herodotus' audience knew them.

Io: daughter of Inachus, king of Argos (in the Peloponnese). She caught the attention of Zeus, who came down to rape her and hid his activities from Hera by covering Argos in a cloud. Hera became suspicious and popped down to see what was going on. Not knowing what to do, Zeus transformed Io into a cow. Hera saw through his deception and asked if she might have the cow as her own. Not seeing how he could reasonably refuse, Zeus complied, whereupon Hera set the watchman Argos to guard Io and make certain that Zeus kept his distance. Argos had eyes all over his body, some of which were always awake. Hermes hypnotized Argos with his magic staff and killed him, so Hera set a gad-fly on poor Io. This creature tormented Io constantly and sent her wandering desperately all over the globe until eventually she arrived in Egypt, where she was released from Hera's anger, restored to her human shape, and gave birth to the god Epaphus (identified by the Greeks with the Egyptian bull-god Apis).
Europa: daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre (in the Levant). Zeus fell in love with her as she was gathering flowers by the seashore and disguised himself as a bull. Europa saw the bull and was so taken with it that she climbed on its back, whereupon Zeus swam off to Crete, where he raped her. Europa bore Minos and Rhadamanthys. (For Minos, and for the bull, review the material on the Minoan Age.)
Medea: daughter of king Aeetes of Colchis (on the far eastern shore of the Black Sea). Jason and the Argonauts came to Colchis in search of the golden fleece, which was in Aeetes' possession. Aeetes did not take kindly to this and, as a condition for handing over the fleece, set a series of impossible tasks for Jason to accomplish. The princess Medea, who was also a practiced sorceress, fell in love with Jason and used her magic powers to help him complete his task. Aeetes was enraged and suspected treachery, but before he could act Medea ran off with Jason, first helping him retrieve the fleece from the dragon that guarded it. After further questionable adventures, Medea was deserted by Jason and took revenge by killing, not only Jason's new bride, but her own children by Jason. (This story is the subject of a famous play by Euripides.)
Helen: see The Mythological Background of Homer's Iliad.

Not only is Herodotus' version of these myths peculiar — notice how he has rationalized the traditional versions, presenting them in a new, "secular" form — but the very mention of these figures of myth is problematic. (Imagine a history of the Second World War that began by claiming that the author's researches indicated that the tensions between Germany and the rest of Europe could be traced back to the affair of Hansel and Gretel!) Moreover, Herodotus cites Persian and Phoenician sources for all of this, the equivalent of a historian in the United States getting the "true" (revisionist) version of George Washington and the cherry tree from "learned English historians." (Cf., e.g., 7.62 on the origin of the name "Medes.")


Herodotus' Relationship to Contemporary "Historians"

Only after this curious beginning does Herodotus turn to what we would call historical matters, focusing on King Croesus of Lydia (1.6). [FN 4] Here we again see Herodotus' odd habit of backing into his stories. What Herodotus sets out to describe in Book 1 of the Histories is the expansion of the Persian Empire, under its king *Cyrus, into Asia Minor (western Turkey) in the 6th century B.C. The heart of the Persian Empire (Persis, the chief cities of which were Susa and Persepolis) lay in present-day Iran (see map 5 in The World of Athens). To the north was the empire of the Medes (Media, the capital of which was Ecbatana), which rose to prominence after overthrowing the old Assyrian empire in 612 B.C. In Asia Minor were a series of smaller kingdoms, the most prominent of which in the 6th century was that of Lydia. A chronological account of the growth of the Persian Empire would begin, then, with the conquest of the Medes, under their king Astyages, to the north and the subsequent Persian expansion westward, with the eventual conquest of the Lydians, under their king *Croesus, in Asia Minor. Instead, Herodotus begins by focusing our attention on Croesus of Lydia, as "the first foreigner so far as we know to come into direct contact with the Greeks" (1.6, a claim that is patently false). In order to tell us about Croesus, however, Herodotus feels that he must trace Croesus' royal line from the beginning, so he immediately backs up and recounts (1.7-14) how Gyges (the first of Croesus' ancestors to rule Lydia) came to the throne by overthrowing the previous king, Candaules (whose historical existence is doubted). He then gives a rapid account of the growth of the Lydian empire under Gyges' successors (1.15ff.), until he again reaches the reign Croesus, under whom the Lydian empire reaches its peak. (This reflects what is known as Herodotus' periodic style of composition: his habit of citing a topic, only to backtrack in a lengthy parenthesis to deal with the relevant background before getting back to his original subject.) At the height of his power, Croesus is overthrown by Cyrus (1.46ff.). Having dealt with Cyrus' defeat of Croesus, and having described Lydia and its people (1.93-94), Herodotus then backs up once again to consider the origin of the Persian Empire (1.95ff.). He begins by giving an account of the rise of the Median empire from its founder, the shadowy Deioces, through Astyages. Herodotus then gives a fanciful account of the birth of Cyrus (Astyages' grandson), who overthrows his grandfather and unites the Medes and Persians into one great empire (1.107ff.). After an account of Persian customs (1.131ff.), Herodotus then jumps back into the "present" (the aftermath of Cyrus' defeat of Croesus) and deals, in the remainder of Book 1, with the career of Cyrus until his death in 529 (1.141ff.). Notice how this approach: (1) places a good deal of emphasis on the figure of Croesus and his fate; (2) allows Herodotus to discuss the different empires (Lydian, Median, and Persian) separately and, in the case of the Lydians and particularly the Persians, to examine their geography, climate, customs, etc. in detail.

Catalogue of Eastern Kings (dates approximate)

*Gyges (685-657)
Ardys (657-620)
Sadyattes (620-610)
Alyattes (610-560)
*Croesus (560-546)
Phraortes (675-653)
Cyaxares (625-585)
Astyages (585-549)
Persians (Achaemenid Persian Empire)
*Cyrus (559-529)
Cambyses (529-522)
*Darius (521-486)
*Xerxes (486-465)
[Link to above summary of Herodotus' account of these kings' reigns]

(At this point you should read Herodotus 1.1-140 if you haven't already.
For a general overview of Herodotus' account, consult the
Outline of Herodotus, The Histories, Books 1, 6.48ff., 7, and 8)

If we look at the tradition in which Herodotus is working, we can perhaps gain a better understanding of some of the curious features of his Histories. In the 440s, when we can assume that Herodotus began work on his account, "history" in the modern sense of the term — i.e. an objective, analytic account of the past that examines an earlier era or series of events by evaluating a wide range of sources and considering such things as socio-economic and political factors — did not exist. In fact the fundamental distinction accepted today between history and myth — between, e.g., modern studies of 6th-century England and tales of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table — was only just emerging. The poet Pindar (c. 513-438), for example, composing in the first half of the 5th century does not treat Achilles and Ajax as figures of make-believe, but as "historical" individuals, about whom there might be conflicting traditions, but whose existence is taken for granted. As a result, before Herodotus' time "history" was largely the province of poets such as Homer and Pindar.

In the mid-6th century, however, the practice did arise of recording the local traditions of individual city-states in prose. The writers of such accounts were known as *logographers ("recorders of stories/legends" — see The World of Athens 7.33). Their principal concern was the synthesis of disparate local legends into sustained, coherent accounts, with elaborate genealogies that would trace the history of important families back to famous mythological figures. Like so many other elements of classical Greek culture, this practice first appears in Asia Minor, but it is a far cry from what we would call history. While the logographers did record the local history of various city-states, they did so in mythological terms. Thus, although they employed prose, to a certain degree they merely "translated" the poetic/mythological tradition into a new medium. (Compare Geoffrey of Monmouth's history of Britain.) For the most part, the logographers were quite uncritical in their approach: they were collectors and systematizers of local legends rather than analytical historians.

The most famous of the logographers is *Hecataeus of Miletus (fl. late 6th century), who responded to the increasing interest in foreign trade and travel by writing what could best be called a descriptive geography. Known as a periplous (lit. "a sailing around"), periegesis, or periodos, this type of work originally was intended as a practical guide for mariners, who traditionally avoided the dangers of the open sea by hugging the coast in their journeys (cf. Mardonius' expedition in 492). The periplous described the route that sailors would follow: safe harbors, treacherous areas, and, of course, the various peoples with which one would come into contact. Over time it appears that these practical guides grew in scope, describing the geography of the interior and going into further detail of the customs and habits of various foreign peoples. Thus more and more attention came to be paid to matters of *ethnography (the study of foreign cultures), the beginnings of what we today call anthropology. These studies will be of particular importance in the course of the 5th century. The Greeks had always been aware that foreign peoples worshipped different gods and had different customs from their own. The rise of these ethnographic studies, however, encouraged systematic reflection on the nature of human culture and society, and suggested that matters which the Greeks had always taken to be founded in immutable divine law, sanctioned by the Olympian gods, were in fact merely human inventions which other societies either ignored or directly contravened. This realization led to a sharp distinction between things that existed according to *physis ("nature" — compare the English "physics") and those that existed merely according to *nomos ("custom" — see The World of Athens 7.28). Nomos is a complex term. It literally means "custom" or "convention," the way things traditionally have been done. In the highly conservative societies of ancient Greece, however — where "the ways of our ancestors" were regarded with reverence, where history was often viewed as a process of decline from the noble age of heroes, and where the adjective "new" often carried overtones of "strange" or "evil" — the term nomos had a force that the English "convention" altogether lacks. In religious matters, nomos was particularly important. Ancient Greek religion was largely a communal affair, a matter of pleasing the supernatural rulers of this world to ensure the community's continued prosperity (healthy children, crops, and herds; success in war; freedom from plague, drought, blight, etc.). In conducting religious rites it was important to follow the methods that had been successful in the past, since to deviate from tradition was to risk incurring divine anger. (Thus a common expression in Greek for worshipping the gods literally means "to treat the gods according to nomos.") In the legal sphere, nomos is the proper term for "law" — i.e. the "customs" or "mores" of the society as enshrined in a legal code. The nomos-physis distinction, however, suggested a different view of nomos, as something arbitrary. According to physis, the human animal needs food, water, air, warmth, and shelter or it will perish. The sex-drive also exists by physis, something that ensures the continuation of the race and is innate. Concern for the gods, however, or for fairness in one's dealings with others; taboos against murder or incest; religious practices of various sorts; fashions in clothing or in diet — such things are mere human conventions, as the studies of the ethnographers indicated, and are not essential to our physis (the latter tending to be associated with self-interest, defined in the narrowest of terms). In fact, these conventions can be viewed as chains upon physis, arbitrarily limiting the individual's scope of action. (For more on the Ethnographers, see the Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment.)

Returning to Herodotus, we can see the influence of the logographers reflected quite clearly in his work. Note, e.g., his attention to the geography and cultures of the various peoples with which he deals, and his general awareness of the nomos-physis controversy (which appears most strikingly in the anecdote at 3.38: see The World of Athens 7.28). Note as well Herodotus' use of myth (e.g., the stories of Io, Europa, and Medea discussed above), his tendency to rationalize or reject traditional stories of the Greeks and others. (Herodotus often echoes the skepticism found in a famous statement of Hecataeus: "What I write here is the account I believe to be true. The Greeks tell many stories on the topic which are, in my opinion, absurd" (The World of Athens 7.33).) Herodotus' use of the term *historia ("inquiry" or "research") in the opening sentence of his work marks him as a product of an age that was beginning to question the older mythopoetic tradition.


Herodotus and Myth: II

Herodotus stands apart from the logographers, however, in a number of ways. He is not at all sympathetic toward Hecataeus, and in fact goes out of his way to mock him on more than one occasion (see, e.g., 2.142-44 and note, in particular, the criticism there of Hecataeus' genealogies). His rationalizations of myth, in particular, are more cunning than anything that seems to have appeared in the logographers. Here are five examples for you to consider:

1) The story of Gyges and Candaules (1.7-13). Gyges was a historical figure, renowned for his wealth (see, e.g., Archilochus frg. 19). He quickly became a figure of myth, however. In Plato's Republic (2.359Dff.) his story involves the discovery of a magic ring in a mysterious ancient tomb. When wearing the ring, Gyges becomes invisible. He uses this power to seduce Candaules' wife and, with her help, to assassinate him. Contrast Herodotus' version of Gyges' rise to power. [FN 5]
2) The story of Arion (1.23-24). As Herodotus tells us, Arion was a famous poet of the 7th century who was said to have invented the *dithyramb, a choral song and dance (thought by many to be the origin of tragedy) in honor of the god *Dionysus. Today Dionysus (or Bacchus) is associated mainly with wine, and his rites (Gk. orgia) with "orgies." In ancient Greece, however, he was a "vegetation god" associated with the life force in all living things. (As E. R. Dodds puts it, "... his domain is ... not only the liquid fire in the grape, but the sap thrusting in a young tree, the blood pounding in the veins of a young animal, all the mysterious and uncontrollable tides that ebb and flow in the life of nature." [FN 6]) Above all, Dionysus was a mysterious god of communal ecstasy, who dissolved traditional boundaries and led the individual to lose him/herself in the exultant experience of the god's power. We know little about the dithyramb in its early form, but are told that it celebrated the god. It seems reasonable that one of the stories celebrated in dithyramb would have been a famous tale preserved for us in the so-called Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (a brief hymn in dactylic hexameter performed at festivals as part of a poetic competition) and represented on a famous black figure cup by Exekias (mid-6th century). Compare Herodotus' story of Arion with the myth of Dionysus presented in the Homeric Hymn.
3) The story of Atys (1.34-45). Herodotus' story of Croesus' son Atys recalls a famous myth associated with a god who appears in a variety of guises in the ancient eastern Mediterranean. The myth involves the young male consort of a mother goddess figure. The young god is born, becomes the lover of the mother goddess, but then is killed in his prime while hunting a wild boar, which gores him in the groin. The mother goddess buries her beloved and mourns him. This story was told in ancient Sumeria of Inanna and her lover Dumuzi, in Assyria of Ishtar and Tammuz, and in Greece of Aphrodite (Roman: Venus) and Adonis (cf. the Egyptian Isis and Osiris). It generally has been interpreted as a vegetation myth intended to explain the seasons, with the young male consort symbolizing the coming and passing of summer, although this interpretation has been challenged. (A similar myth is told in Greece of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, again with antecedents in the ancient Near East.) In Asia Minor (and, more particularly, in Croesus' Lydia), a similar tale was told of the great earth mother Cybele and her lover Attis (symbolized by a pine tree). Perhaps in commemoration of Attis, Cybele was served by eunuch priests known as Galli, who initiated themselves into her cult by castrating themselves with a piece of flint. Compare Herodotus' story of Atys with the myth of Cybele and Attis.
4) The story of Croesus on the pyre (1.86-87). Like tales of Gyges, this story too was wide-spread. It is recounted in the following passage from one of the odes of Bacchylides (dated to 468 B.C.) and may have appeared in a play depicted on the fragments of a red figure vase dated to c. 460:
Bacchylides 3.21-62: Let one adorn the god with gifts, for in this lies the best hope of true prosperity (olbos). Once Apollo of the golden sword saved even the marshal of the horse-taming Lydians, [FN 7] when Zeus fulfilled the fated judgment and Sardis was taken by the Persian host. Croesus, having come to that unexpected day, was not about to await the grievous lot of slavery. In front of his court, with its brazen walls, he had a pyre built up. There he mounted, with his dear wife and his tearful daughters with their gorgeous hair. Lifting his hands to the lofty aether he called out: "Wanton daimon, where is the gratitude of the gods? Where is the divine lord, Leto's son? The halls of Alyattes [FN 8] are rushing to ruin. ... Gold-eddying Pactolus is stained red with blood and — disgrace! — our women are being led off to slavery from our stately palaces. What before was hateful now is dear: to die is sweetest."
So he spoke, and commanded a delicately-treading servant to set ablaze the wooden structure. The young women cried out, stretching out their arms toward their mother, for death that approaches openly is the most hateful for mortals. But when the blazing force of the dread fire had quickly spread all around, Zeus sent a dark-shrouding cloud overhead and quenched the tawny flame: nothing is beyond belief which the care of the gods contrives. Then Delos-born Apollo conveyed the old man and his slender-ankled daughters to the land of the blessed Hyperboreans and settled them there, all on account of Croesus' piety (eusebeia), because he had sent the greatest gifts to holy Pytho. [FN 9]
5) The birth of Cyrus (1.107-30). Compare the following myths:
a) The myth of Oedipus. (See the unit on Sophocles' Oedipus.)
b) The myth of Alope. Alope, daughter of Cercyon and a girl of exceeding beauty, was raped by Poseidon. Out of this embrace she bore a child, which, without her father's knowledge, she gave to her nurse to expose. When it had been exposed, a mare came and nursed it. A certain shepherd, in search of the mare, saw the child and took it up. After he had taken the baby, clad in its royal garments, to his hut, one of his fellow shepherds asked that he give the baby to him, which the first shepherd did — but without its regal dress. A dispute fell out between the two shepherds when the one who had received the baby demanded the insignia of its birth (i.e. the garment) and the first shepherd refused to yield them. They sought out King Cercyon and began to argue their respective cases. The shepherd who had received the child began to demand back the insignia. When these were brought, however, and Cercyon recognized them as having been torn from a dress belonging to his daughter, the nurse (afraid of the king's anger) confessed that the baby was Alope's. Cercyon ordered that his daughter be shut away and starved to death, and that the baby be cast out. Once again the mare nursed the baby, once again shepherds found it and took it up, thinking it to have survived and been raised by the will of the gods. They gave the child the name Hippothoos. Theseus, passing by on his way from Troezen, killed Cercyon. Hippothoos, however, went to Theseus and demanded his ancestral realms. Theseus gladly granted them to him once he learned that Hippothoos was the son of Poseidon, whence he traced his own descent. Moreover, Poseidon transformed the body of Alope into the spring which today bears her name.
c) The myth of Romulus and Remus. Romulus and Remus are the mythological founders of Rome. Their mother, Rhea Silvia, was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. Numitor was overthrown by his evil brother Amulius, who compelled Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin to insure that she could never have sons who would grow up and avenge their grandfather. Rhea Silvia was raped by the god Mars, however, and had two sons, Romulus and Remus. Amulius ordered the sons to be exposed on the banks of the river Tiber and so drowned, but the men given the job of exposing the boys failed to put them close enough to the water and they survived, being suckled by a she-wolf. They were taken in by a shepherd and grew up to be noble youths who rid the countryside of wild beasts and robbers. Remus was captured by robbers and taken before Amulius as a brigand. The two youths' identity was revealed, Remus was rescued by Romulus, and Numitor was restored to the throne of Alba Longa. Romulus and Remus then leave to found their own city, Rome. [FN 10]
d) The myth of Atreus and Thyestes. Atreus was king of Mycenae. His brother, Thyestes, managed to steal the throne by seducing Atreus' wife and gaining access to the magic ram that was the source of Atreus' kingly authority. Atreus regained the throne and pretended to forgive his brother. He invited Thyestes to a banquet. Once the banquet was over, Atreus had a covered platter brought in; when the cover was lifted, the heads of Thyestes' children were revealed and Atreus announced that Thyestes had been feasting on the flesh of his own children. One son of Thyestes survived and later took revenge by killing Atreus' son Agamemnon.

Herodotus' use of myth is quite cunning, at times (as with the story of Arion) seeming to translate specific literary genres into the medium of prose "history." Many have noted, e.g., that the story of Croesus' son Atys has been developed along lines that directly recall the practices of the Greek tragedians. (One German scholar has even "translated" the story into tragic verse.) This is even more interesting when we consider: (1) that an ancient tradition held that Herodotus was a friend of Sophocles, the famous tragic playwright; (2) that Herodotus and Sophocles sound similar themes in their works. (You might want to reconsider Herodotus once we have examined Sophocles' Oedipus.) In any case, you want to be careful when reading Herodotus: like Chaucer, he presents us with a narrator who at times seems incredibly naive, even absurd, but there is evidence that, as with Chaucer, a cunning intelligence lies beneath that humble facade.


Croesus and Divine Justice

Another thing that sets Herodotus apart from his predecessors is his view of history as revealing a moral order in the universe. Herodotus sees the world in terms very similar to those of Solon. History for Herodotus is not merely a series of random events or a matter of socio-economic forces, but rather provides an insight into the working of divine justice. For Herodotus, as for Solon, the justice of the gods is difficult to divine in advance but operates according to the set principles of: 1) miasma and inherited guilt, 2) dikê, and 3) koros-hybris-atê.

Re-read Herodotus 1.6-13, 26-56, and 71-91. [FN 11] Consider the following questions:

a) Why does Herodotus have Solon appear at 1.29ff.?
(Note that Croesus' reign dates to c. 560-546 B.C. Therefore, Solon's visit, which must be imagined as happening c. 550, dates to between 20 and 45 years after the date of Solon's archonship, which Herodotus claims was the occasion for Solon's visit to Croesus' court. I.e. the story cannot be historical: in fact, Solon was very likely dead by 550.)
b) What is the point of Solon's stories of Tellus and Cleobis and Biton? Why are Cleobis and Biton accorded only second place?
c) Of what does Croesus' "fall" consist? (I.e. what happens to him?) How is his fall appropriate in the context of Solon's warnings?
d) Why does Croesus fall?

It would seem that one of the reasons Herodotus opens his account by drawing our attention to Croesus is that Croesus provides a moral paradigm of sorts, a sample of how the gods' justice operates. In fact, you will find that Croesus is a sort of small-scale version of Xerxes. The latter's fall is more complex than that of Croesus, and is recounted at greater length, but is viewed in similar terms.

In some ways, Herodotus' account is reminiscent of the Iliad. As in Homer, Herodotus' characters operate in a world governed by a divine will of which they are ignorant. In Homer, this divine presence is made concrete: we actually see the gods at work and hear at first hand, e.g., their references to the approaching fates of Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles, of which the mortal characters are ignorant until it is too late. (Note, e.g., the prominent reference to "the will of Zeus" in the opening lines of the poem.) In Herodotus (who, unlike Homer, cannot bring gods directly into his narrative) this divine presence and the gap between human and divine knowledge is communicated by the constant references to dreams and oracles. Consistently in Herodotus individuals will be given direct warnings of their fates, but will fail to understand those warnings until it is too late. (Think of the oracles given to Croesus, or the various dreams and prodigies that precede Xerxes' expedition.)

You will find that the god Apollo dominates Herodotus' work. This is because Apollo, as the god of prophecy, embodies many of the themes that Herodotus wishes to express. Apollo's principal shrine was at *Delphi in central Greece (The World of Athens 2.15-17). There his oracles were delivered by a priestess (known as the *Pythia) seated on a sacred tripod. The oracles of the *Pythian Apollo (as he was called at Delphi) were famous for: (1) their infallible accuracy, and (2) their obscurity (hence another epithet of Apollo: Loxias, the "devious" or "ambiguous" god). The god would tell those who consulted his oracle the exact truth, but they would not understand it until it was too late. Thus Pythian Apollo distinctly symbolizes the rift between human ignorance and divine wisdom. This division is expressed by the two *Delphic Maxims which we are told were engraved above the doorway of the temple at Delphi: (1) "Know thyself" and (2) "Nothing in excess." The first of these is generally taken to mean that we should recognize that we are mere mortals and behave accordingly (i.e. avoid koros-hybris-atê). The second is, in effect, the flip side of the first: a person who recognizes his/her mortal limits will avoid extreme actions, particularly acts of hybris. (Cf. Solon's lecture to Croesus, which has precisely this notion as its theme, and note the behavior of Xerxes prior to his fall (e.g., 7.33-35 and 38-40); see as well, Plato, Charmides 164d-165a.)

Read Herodotus 6.48-84, 102-117; 7.1-104, 139-144, 175-end; 8.49-99, 108-110, 136-end.


Herodotus' Achievement

If we step back and consider Herodotus' work, it represents an astonishing achievement. Herodotus sets out to provide an account of the Persian Wars, but uses the massive extent of the Persian Empire as an occasion to describe virtually the entire known world. Thus, like the logographers, he presents an elaborate descriptive geography, but he manages to give his work a dramatic form and a tension in that Books 1-5 depict, in effect, the rise of a massive Persian juggernaut, that conquers virtually the entire world only to meet defeat from the Greeks. (Cf. the story of Croesus, who reaches the height of his power only to be defeated by Cyrus.) Implicit in the structure of the work is a warning against hybris and a reaffirmation of the Delphic maxims discussed above. In a curious way, Herodotus is an epic poet in prose, writing of a Trojan War in reverse. Note, e.g., the terms in which he states the purpose of his work: "... to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples" (1.1: the Greek is more precise, stating Herodotus' intention to see to it that those achievements do not come to be without fame (kleos)). Like a Homeric bard, Herodotus sets out to preserve the fame (kleos) of great men of the past (cf. Achilles at Iliad 9.189). Like Homer, he operates on an epic scale (both in terms of the length of his work and the size of his subject). Like Homer, he presents his subject in larger than human terms (cf., e.g., the description of Xerxes' forces at 7.60ff. with famous Catalogue of Ships in Iliad 2) and with the drama and grandeur of epic (note the Homeric overtones of Herodotus' description of the battle of Marathon at 6.114 (cf. the battle by the Greek ships in the Iliad) or the battle for Leonidas' body at 7.225). Like Homer, Herodotus tends to develop his account by focusing on individuals. And, like Homer, Herodotus sets the events of which he speaks in a larger philosophical/theological framework, using it to reflect on the human condition. Even the manner in which Herodotus' work was presented would recall Homer: you must remember that Greece, even in the second half of the 5th century, was primarily an oral culture (see The World of Athens 7.15-16); most people who experienced Herodotus' Histories did so by hearing them recited at a festival or some other public occasion, just as they would the poems of Homer. Herodotus is not the only historian (as opposed to logographer) at work in the third quarter of the 5th century (we have fragments of others), but the scale of his work, its sophisticated plan, and its complex unity (despite all of the apparent detours — another trait that Herodotus shares with Homer) make it unique. Particularly interesting is the way in which Herodotus melds older mythopoetic traditions with the new "science" of prose historia to yield a complex hybrid.


Herodotus' Histories and Contemporary Politics

There remains one other feature of Herodotus' work to be discussed: its political outlook. The Histories tell us a good deal about how, in the course of the 5th century, the Greeks came to define themselves by casting the eastern "barbarians" as a negative foil for those traits which they admired in themselves (see The World of Athens, P. 2-6). The Persian Wars mark something of a watershed in this regard: prior to the 480s the Greek view of their eastern neighbors does not seem to have been excessively negative or hostile (note, e.g., Homer's portrayal of the Trojans). Following the Persian Wars, however, easterners come to be portrayed in pejorative terms: decadent and effeminate (in large part due to their excessive wealth and "soft" living: note, e.g., Herodotus 1.71, the fame of Gyges' wealth, and the lavish nature of Croesus' offerings at Delphi (1.50-51)), slavish (particularly in their willingness to serve absolute despots like Xerxes), and often grotesque (e.g., their use of eunuchs, the practice of circumcision, their strange gods and religious practices). By contrast, the Greeks view themselves as virile and independent, proudly fighting in defense of their cities, their families, and their gods, and for their own freedom and dignity. [FN 12] See, e.g., 7.101-05 (Xerxes and Demaratus), 7.208-10 and 223 (the nobility of the Spartans, as opposed to Xerxes' troops, who have to be driven to battle with whips).

But Herodotus' work also has been thought to make a statement about the internal politics of Greece in his time (the 440s to mid-420s). In antiquity Herodotus was felt to display a blatantly pro-Athenian bias, and a close reading of the Histories reveals that many of Herodotus' sources were pro-Athenian (as we would expect, given that he spent a good deal of time in Athens and in Thurii, a colony of Athens; no doubt the picture he paints would be different had he had closer connections to Thebes or Sparta). In a famous passage at 7.139 Herodotus even declares that the Greeks would have fallen before Xerxes' invasion had Athens done what Thebes and several other northern city-states did and capitulated to the Persians. It can be argued, however, that while Herodotus does glorify Athens in, e.g., his treatment of Marathon and in his portrayal of Salamis as the crucial battle in the war, he is quite free with his praise of the Spartans as well, as in his description of Thermopylae and Plataea. In fact, Herodotus often shows Athens and Sparta acting in tandem with one another, the implication being that they are natural allies: in Croesus' inquiries re affairs in Greece at 1.56ff., in the pairing of Thermopylae with Artemisium and of Salamis with Plataea. This pairing would have had a particular poignancy for an audience in the 440s to 420s, given the increasing hostilities between Athens and Sparta in this period, which culminated in the outbreak of the second Peloponnesian War in 431 (see The World of Athens, H.I. 29-34). Athens was regarded by many Greeks as the aggressor in this conflict and was not looked upon favorably: this helps to explain the way in which Herodotus introduces his remarks at 7.139 (see above). In any case, the period in which Herodotus was writing witnessed the irony of the two states that had united to ward off Xerxes now turning their forces against one another in what was to be a long, bloody, and ultimately futile conflict. Herodotus' work represents an implicit criticism of this state of affairs in its picture of the glories attained by the Greeks when they stood united against a foreign enemy. (At times this criticism becomes overt: see Mardonius' comments at 7.9.) On this reading Herodotus anticipates the many cries for a panhellenic unity that begin to be heard in the late 5th and early 4th century. (Cf. the Introduction to Aeschylus' Persians.)


[FN 1] Herodotus himself notes the improbability of these last two. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Cf. the New York Times for 13 July 1994. [Return to text]

[FN 3] At about the same time as Xerxes' invasion, the Greeks of Magna Graecia managed to repel an attack by Carthage, another great "eastern" power: see The World of Athens, H.I. 21. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Here you might find it useful to consult the Catalogue of Eastern Kings presented below and the Outline of Herodotus, The Histories, Books 1, 6.48ff., 7, and 8 on this WWW site. [Return to text]

[FN 5] We have a fragment of what was probably a 4th-century tragedy dealing with Gyges' ascension to the throne (although some scholars argue that it belongs to the time of Aeschylus and is Herodotus' source). The fragment is only some 47 lines long, and all but 15 lines are too fragmentary to yield much sense, but they show a clear relationship to Herodotus' account. The fragment gives us the opening of the play: Candaules' queen is greeted by the chorus and proceeds to tell them of her humiliation at being seen naked by Gyges. She summons Gyges and is just beginning to confront him when the fragment breaks off. [Return to text]

[FN 6] E. R. Dodds, ed., Euripides: Bacchae (second edition: Oxford, 1960) xii. [Return to text]

[FN7] The marshal of the horse-taming Lydians is Croesus. [Return to text]

[FN 8] Alyattes is Croesus' father. [Return to text]

[FN 9] Pytho is another name for Delphi. [Return to text]

[FN 10] Cf. as well the story of Moses in the bulrushes (Exodus 2.1-10). A similar story was told of Sargon of Agade (c. 2600 B.C.). [Return to text]

[FN 11] Compare Plutarch's account of this tale in his Life of Solon 27.2-28.6 (translated by Niall McCloskey):

XXVII 2. The story is that Solon went to Sardis at the invitation of Croesus and had the same experience as a man who, born inland, goes to the sea for the first time. 3. Such a man would think that each river, one after the other, was the sea. Similarly Solon thought each of the many courtiers he saw was Croesus as they strutted about in their magnificent attire surrounded by troops of attendants and guards. At last he was brought to Croesus who in order to appear at his most impressive and spectacular was decked out with jewels, dyed robes and gold ornaments and everything which was extraordinary and enviable. 4. When Solon was in the presence of the king, however, he did not react nor did he say any of the things about this display which Croesus had expected. Instead it was clear to those with perception that he felt contempt for this tastelessness and ostentation. Croesus ordered his people to open the treasuries of money for Solon and to bring him there and show him the extent of the king's wealth and abundance, even though Solon had not asked for this. 5. The king in himself was evidence enough for Solon of his character. 6. When Solon was brought back after seeing all these things, Croesus asked him if Solon knew of any man more blessed than the king himself. Solon replied that he knew Tellos, a fellow citizen to be more blessed and explained that Tellos was an honest man who had lacked none of the necessities of life and had died honorably fighting for his country and left behind him children of good reputation. To Croesus Solon appeared to be an eccentric simpleton since he did not measure being blessed by the quantity of gold and silver one possessed and since he put the life and death of an ordinary individual over power and authority such as his own. 7. Nevertheless he asked again what men Solon had known after Tellos as more blessed than all other men. Solon replied that he had been familiar with Cleobis and Biton, two men who loved one another and their mother with a remarkable love. One day when the oxen were delayed they yoked themselves to their mother's wagon and conveyed her themselves to the temple of Hera to their mother's great joy and with the praises of the citizens. After the sacrifice and the symposium they never arose again but were discovered to have died a painless and peaceful death in the midst of such great fame. "And us," Croesus asked angrily, "do you not include us among the number of blessed men?" 8. Solon did not wish either to flatter the king nor to anger him further and so replied: "O King of the Lydians, to the Greeks the gods have given all things in a modest portion and so we have a share of a timid wisdom, of an ordinary kind to be sure, not regal or ostentatious. This wisdom sees that life is ever at the mercy of chances of all kinds and thus does not allow us to take pride in present good fortune nor to admire a man's good fortune while there is still time for change. 9. For every man the future is varied and unknown and we consider blessed only the man to whom the daimon has given prosperity right up to the end of his life. The happiness of a man still living and still subject to the chances of life is insecure and not guaranteed just like the proclamation and crown of a competitor at the games." After he had said this, Solon retired but he had only irritated Croesus, not enlightened him.

XXVIII 1. The fabulist Aesop happened to be at Sardis at this time on the order of Croesus who held him in high honor. He was upset at Solon's failure to gain respect and turning to him, said: "One must deal with kings as little or as pleasantly as possible." Solon replied: "By Zeus, as little or as honorably as possible." 2. After this Croesus despised Solon. But when he fought Kyros and was defeated in battle he lost his city and was captured alive. He was condemned to be burned at the stake and the pyre had already been prepared. With his chains he mounted on the pyre in the presence of Kyros and with the Persians watching, he cried out in a voice, raised to carry as far as possible: "O Solon!, O Solon!, O Solon!" 3. Kyros was puzzled by this and sent men to inquire what man or god was Solon that in such dire misfortune Croesus called on him alone. 4. Croesus in his reply concealed nothing but said: "He is one of the wise men of the Greeks whom I sent for although I was not willing to listen and learn from him things which I needed to know. Rather I wanted him to observe my blessedness and to go away as a witness to it. It is a greater evil to lose such good fortune than to gain it. 5. When I had it, it was mere reputation and illusion but now it has changed into fearful sufferings and unbearable circumstances. But that man foresaw my present situation in what I was then and advised me to consider the end of life and not to over-reach myself by relying on uncertain schemes." 6. When these things were repeated to Kyros, he was wiser than Croesus and saw that Solon's warning was all the stronger because of that man's example. Not only did he release Croesus but he held him in high honor for as long as he lived. Thus Solon gained the reputation of having saved the one king and having enlightened the other. [Return to text]

[FN 12] See, e.g., E. Hall's Inventing the Barbarian (Oxford, 1989) or (somewhat more accessible for the general reader) P. duBois' Centaurs and Amazons (Ann Arbor, 1982). [Return to text]

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